The research comes from the University of Texas Health Science Center, Harvard Medical School and more and features cognitive data on 2,231 dementia-free participants involved in the Framingham Heart Study. The subjects underwent measurements of blood serum cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, throughout the day. And of the 2,231 participants, 2,018 also underwent MRIs to measure brain volume.
Scientists found that even when adjusted for age, sex, smoking and body mass index, middle aged adults in their 40s and 50s with higher levels of cortisol experienced more memory loss and brain shrinkage before the onset of symptoms compared to their middle-aged counterparts with average cortisol levels. The association, researchers said, was particularly evident in women.
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"One of the things we know in animals is that stress can lead to cognitive decline. In this study, higher morning cortisol levels in a large sample of people were associated with worse brain structure and cognition," senior author Sudha Seshadri said in a university article.
“The faster pace of life today probably means more stress, and when we are stressed, cortisol levels increase because that is our fight-or-flight response,” she said. “When we are afraid, when we are threatened in any way, our cortisol levels go up. This study adds to the prevailing wisdom that it's never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.”
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According to the Mayo Clinic, cortisol "increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues." The stress hormone also curbs functions that may be detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, alters responses in the immune system and suppresses the digestive and reproductive systems. According to health experts, cortisol levels influence regions of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
Lead author Justin Echouffo-Tcheugui urges physicians to counsel those with higher cortisol levels on how to reduce stress, including sleep regulation and adding a healthy fitness regimen.
Read the full study at n.neurology.org.
If you feel you are under stress, recognize when you need help.
Follow these tips from the CDC:
- Take care of yourself by eating healthy, well-balanced meals, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and giving yourself a mental break when you feel stressed out.
- Talk to others. Share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a parent, friend, counselor, doctor or pastor.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol, both of which may seem to help in the moment. In the long run, they create additional problems and increase the stress you are already feeling.
- Take a break. If your stress is caused by a national or local event, take breaks from listening to the news stories, which can increase your stress.
- Recognize when you need more help. If problems continue or you are thinking about suicide, talk to a psychologist, social worker or professional counselor.
More at CDC.gov.